Growing food for Africa

In Africa we live of staples such as rice, maize, and potatoes, but there’s many more plants available that people simply don’t use enough. Engela Duvenage spent an afternoon tasting ‘orphan crops’ in the foraging garden of the Future Africa Campus at the University of Pretoria.

With a pocketknife he keeps handy, botanist Jason Sampson slices a sliver off an African ginseng vine winding along a wire trellis.

“Taste that,” suggests the curator of the University of Pretoria’s Manie van der Schijff Botanical Garden. “It tastes like vanilla.”

I promptly do, although I’ve never seen the plant in my life.

Jason gives me a quick lesson in African ginger (Mondia whitei), a plant that has been rendered extinct in parts of its African range by over collecting for traditional medicines.

“It’s considered endangered throughout its local range of Tugela Ferry in KwaZulu-Natal, but on the UP campus I’ve seen it growing everywhere, for instance all over a four-story fire escape covered in cabling at the Mineral Sciences Building.

“I’ve infused it in vodka and white rum before, but I’d love to try it in gin,” Jason muses, before closing his pocketknife.

We set off for another part of the lush “foraging garden” that flourishes around the conference centre, restaurant, and accommodation on UP’s Future Africa Campus.

Jason stops to clean leaves off a twig of dogwood (Rhamnus prinoides).

“I used it as a hopping agent to brew home-made beer during hard lockdown in 2020,” he explains.

When plans in the early 2010s were afoot to build the Future Africa Campus on a part of the university’s experimental farm, it was Jason’s idea to start an edible garden around the buildings and the fig and avocado trees that were kept out of harm’s way.

Today, everything except its plot of endangered cycads is in some way edible – be it their leaves, roots, fruit, flowers, or bark. However, don’t expect it to be your typical suburban vegetable garden filled with pumpkins, tomatoes, spinach, and strawberries growing (although you’ll find those, too, along with a tsamma melon and African rice, when in season).

During the afternoon, I’ve already readily tried everything that the passionate botanist has offered me from the garden. There’s been Mut’shaina or M’shai, a mustard plant from Venda that packs a punch, a white-flowering creeper whose leaves taste like rocket, and different types of amaranthus (or “marog”) that can grow up to 2 meters and tastes like commercially grown baby spinach.

Spekboom in your potjie

“We only eat about few staples, such as rice, maize, and potatoes, but there’s many more plants available that people simply don’t use enough. We call those ‘orphan crops’,” Sampson noted at the start of my personal garden tour.

According to the website Food Insight, orphan crops tend to be plants that “aren’t traded internationally, and therefore tend to get less attention in terms of research of agricultural training and extension. They’re typically grown in Africa, Asia, and/or South America and eaten as part of local diets.”

Jason is a veritable walking recipe book of using lesser-known plants.

He hands me a round spekboom (Portulacaria afra) leaf.

Its sour taste shocks slightly.

“The best way to use it in a potjie. When it’s almost done, add a few twigs. Cook it down, remove the twigs, and stir in the leaves.”

Some kind of African “lemon zest”, I say.

Jason nods in agreement as we walk along the blue-tiled furrows that meander through the campus, which is fed from a lily-covered retention pond that forms the centrepiece of the Future Africa development.

“You can add spekboom to salads too,” he enthuses. “We’ve planted a variety that doesn’t have such a waxy coating, which is easier to eat.”

Carnations for the restaurant

Although the produce from the garden is used widely in the salads and other food prepared in the kitchen of the on-site restaurant, the idea was never to completely stock it with its full complement of produce. Rather, it serves to introduce visitors fine dining in the restaurant to the vast array of “other” food plants on offer. Bite by bite, so to speak.

Jason is not a purist about only growing African plants by default.

“We recently planted small carnations after the chef asked for more edible plants as garnishing,” he relays as we walk past a patch of nasturtiums with edible orange and yellow flowers and buds that can be pickled into mock capers.

Nearby, a seedling tray stands at the ready to be planted out. Jason had grown the Roselle hibiscus seedlings,the source of hibiscus tea, from seeds he sourced seeds from contacts in his edible foods network. Another new addition is yellow fruited granadilla plants (Passiflora edulis var. flavicarpa, the so-called ‘Gauvadilla’), to be planted along a fence – and one day turned into a dessert.

Lina Rampora, curator of the Future Africa garden, and her team of ten also do their own propagation at the University’s nearby Cycad and Indigenous Plant Nursery. Special plants are bought from hobby growers, and seed and seedlings from commercial nurseries.

We meet the passionate Lina near a veld patch of ruby grass (Melinus nerviglumis)andyellow flowering African potato (Hypoxsis). She started off as an intern as part of her Ornamental Horticulture degree from nearby Tshwane University of Technology, and today runs a tight ship.

Of her Jason says: “She is a natural plantsperson; she can get a broomstick to grow. I think she might even have green toes.”

Next up we pass a line of Pondoland palm trees (Jubaeopsis caffra) growing hip high among the blocks of red, blue, and yellow retro accommodation units on campus.

“There’s no more than a 1000 of them left in the wild,” Jason explains. “There’s probably more in California, where they grow anything!”

In the spirit of being in an edible garden, I ask how its miniature coconuts taste like.

Jason gives me a look of slight horror, as if I’ve just asked to eat his nine-month-old daughter.

“Oh no,” he hesitates long enough for the conservationist in him to come to the fore, “I’d feel too bad to eat it.”

I’ve committed a botany faux pas – its coconut, the size of child’s fist, is after all the rare plant’s seed, its lifeline!

Botanical gardens, in their very nature, were created to be a showcase and haven for selections of plants, often endangered. Jason is however a man well satisfied to work beyond the confines or borders of conventional gardening and conservation. He views the Future Africa garden, and the UP campus at large, as an extension of the botanical garden he overseas as curator, and as spaces to provide rare plants such as the Pondoland palm tree, the baobab, and cycads another home.

Having rare plants flourish all around campus also serves an academic purpose.

“It is easier for researchers to study samples they collect here, for instance for ethnobotanical studies, than to try and get a permit to sample plants in the wild. Its more sustainable too.”

Botanical gardens beyond borders could indeed be his mantra.

First published in AA Traveller, Summer 2022. Reprinted with permission from the AA and Media24.

Some plants in the Future Africa Garden are listed on your website: Future Ffrica gardens